For local artisans in Kashmir, a ‘handicraft safari’ offers a lifeline

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Artisans see UNESCO’s recognition of Srinagar’s folk art as a welcome step in reviving the city’s declining cultural craftsmanship.

Kashmir is world famous not only for its rugged natural beauty, but also for its rich local traditions of unique traditional handicrafts and artworks, from papier-mâché to walnut wood carvings. But in a world where mass-produced manufactures have become the norm, the tens of thousands of Kashmiri artisans are struggling to keep up.

To revive the famous but declining handicrafts of Kashmir, especially at a time when lockdowns have devastated sales, the Handicrafts Department of the Government of Jammu and Kashmir has embarked on a “Craft Safari” initiative. ” which many artisans in the region see as a beacon of hope.

“If all goes well, Kashmir’s centuries-old craftsmanship will flourish again, giving the region’s culture and heritage a much-needed boost while giving local artisans a fresh start,” said Tariq Ahmad Zargar, director of the Kashmiri Handicrafts and Hand Weaving division. .

Last year, these local craft traditions helped the city of Srinagar secure a place in the UNESCO Creative Cities Network, joining around 300 cities. Launched in 2004, the objective of the network is to advance cooperation between members in the context of sustainable urban development. The designation, in the Crafts and Folk Art category, recognizes that Srinagar has placed its creative and cultural industries at the center of its strategy for this development.

The strong artistic and cultural heritage of the city of Srinagar dates back to the 14th century. Nearly 40,000 registered artisans work in fields ranging from carpet weaving to copperware, producing handicrafts in styles unique to the region. Over the decades, craftsmanship has become an essential part of the city’s economy and social fabric, generating jobs and driving economic growth. Experts say the crafts industry has the potential to provide stable jobs for locals, provided improved marketing and promotion measures are put in place.

Due to the absence of a market, the ongoing territorial dispute in the disputed region, the Covid-19 closures as well as the ubiquity of machine-made handicrafts, the ancient cultural handicrafts of Kashmir have been slowly dying since a few decades. As a result, the younger generation is not attracted to learning many of these skills and pursuing the profession; some families who had specialized in specific craft methods for generations are now selling their small businesses and moving away from the heritage of their region.

Now, some local artisans say initiatives like the Craft Safari have proven to be a step to reviving the declining art and a hope for young artisans.

The Craft Safari is a guided tour that takes a group of people – tourists, tour guides, scholars, journalists, employees, students and others – to see the artisans of Srinagar city at work. These artisans still practice unique centuries-old craftsmanship in various mediums including papier-mâché, woodcarving, ceramics, silverware, copperware, NamdhaKari textiles, and silk carpets.

“The safari aims to bring potential buyers directly to the craftsmen,” says papier-mâché instructor Ishfar Ali. “The craftsman also has the opportunity to interact with customers and assess market needs in order to make the necessary changes to meet market demand.”

Zargar tells Next City that the purpose of the craft safari is to take visitors to the artisans themselves and show them exactly what it takes to make the crafts.

“A goal drives us to have people buy it directly from the maker,” says Zargar. “This will shift the economic benefits to artisans, with less involvement of intermediaries.”

Syed Amjid Ali has been working as an artisan in Srinagar for over 40 years. Thanks to the artisan safari, he says, government officials have also started visiting artisans. Travel agents have also started calling craftsmen. Apart from simply making tourists aware of Srinagar’s artistic heritage, Ali says, artisans have also made sales through these safaris.

Abdul Majeed Dar, an artisan who produces papier-mâché items, tells Next City that increasing sales is no small feat.

“Since people from all walks of life have started visiting us through safaris, my sales have increased dramatically and I can’t keep up with the demand,” he says.

The ongoing conflict and lockdowns have affected the sector. The Indian government revoked Kashmir’s special status on August 5, 2019 and imposed movement and communication restrictions for many months. With landlines, cell phones and internet services blocked even during During the normally lucrative festival seasons, local businesses, particularly in the craft sector, have been hit hard.

But as artisans prepared to restart their trade, another lockdown was imposed in 2020 as the pandemic crippled life around the world. The lockdowns have cost the region $7 billion, according to the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a local business organization.

Pashmina maker Ghulam Mohammad Baigh, who is in the fifth generation of his family to specialize in handicrafts, says the three decades of territorial dispute have marred the region’s cottage industry and the last two lockdowns of 2019 and 2020 have been hit hard. The area.

Only the support of the local community allowed the industry to survive. “During the lockdowns, locals would buy Pashmina from us and that kept artisans and crafts alive,” says Baigh.

With many machine-made handicrafts also being erroneously sold as handmade, artisans have also formed local associations which have been successful in securing geographical indications, certifying legitimate artisanal products for many of their products and helping to protect their livelihoods. Of Srinagar’s 10 unique historical handicrafts, seven have been given GIs – hand-knotted carpets, papier-mache, pashmina, Kani, Sozzani, Khatamband shawls and walnut wood carving – helping to curb the mis-selling of handicrafts machine made under the label of craftsmanship.

To add value to the creative city of crafts and folk arts, UNESCO asks cities to engage in measures that improve living and working conditions in the area of ​​interest of the creative field, ensure the long-term prosperity of local artisans and make it easier for people from low-income families to learn and practice traditional crafts and folk art.

To join the Creative Cities Network, Srinagar officials worked with local artisans to develop an app that outlined an action plan for projects and policies that would be launched over the next four years. The “Craft Safari” initiative is at the heart of this strategy.

In many ways, UNESCO recognition is just a marketing ploy to attract more tourists to the city and shoppers to its artisan workshops. But this decision also shows that the city considers its skilled craftsmen to be a worthwhile investment, central to its urban cultural identity and development. City officials say Srinagar had worked to join the list for four years. The city had hired an agency in 2018 to consult with all local stakeholders, including its craft and trade bodies as well as government agencies working on trade and crafts.

With global recognition of Srinagar’s rich artisanal heritage in the form of UNESCO status, Mariam Shah, an assistant professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Kashmir, expects change at the grassroots level for artisans.

Low wages in the sector, the absence of protective labor laws and worker unions, and the presence of powerful exploitative intermediaries have caused uncertainty and financial disparities for workers on many levels. Shah predicts that the city’s strategic revitalization efforts may be able to alleviate the problems caused by the informal and unregulated economy of the artisanal sector.

While a healthy and thriving ecosystem must be nurtured around these trades, Shah stresses that the state must protect the interests of the workers who have kept these skills alive under the harshest circumstances in this region.

“Initiatives like Craft Safari are important interventions and will create a direct link between artisans and government and weaken the hold of middlemen in the system,” Shah said.

Bilal Hussain is a freelance journalist in Srinagar, Kashmir.


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